Peter Beaumont writes:
One of Tunisia’s most famous poets, Abou al-Kacem Echebbi, whose face adorns the 30-dinar note, is best known in the wider Arab world for several verses that warn tyrants they will face bloody insurrection. “Who grows thorns will reap wounds,” Echebbi wrote – a line that the country’s dictatorial president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, might be reflecting on in his place of exile, Saudi Arabia.
He may not, however, be the only leader in the region to be doing so. For what has happened in Tunisia, a country which Ben Ali and his cronies controlled since he seized power in 1987, has a message for other regimes whose democratic credentials are less than shining. While it is not clear what Tunisia’s path will be after Friday’s insurrection, the complaints of the protesters are familiar across the region and have also, in some cases, prompted demonstrations. Algeria, home to an often restless young population, has seen protests about unemployment and food prices which began on 5 January and prompted a harsh crackdown. In Jordan, which saw demonstrations last week in five cities, the calls were very similar. There, too, the country’s leader was assailed with demands to resign.
Nowhere has the link between the removal of Ben Ali and other countries been clearer than in Cairo, where on Friday night protests were held by opposition members outside the Tunisian embassy. Their message was explicit: President Hosni Mubarak should follow Ben Ali’s example and leave his country, too.
Adla Massoud writes:
Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi, says Tunisian people deserved to be thanked twice: “for proving that the Arab street is not dead as many had expected and is capable of waging an intifada and making sacrifices for change, and for exposing the Arab regimes that claimed to care about human rights and the values of justice and democracy.”
With the emergence of a large layer of educated youth who have no job prospects and no future, the Arab people have reached a boiling point.
They have had enough of chronic unemployment; economic deprivation; rising food prices; insufficient public investment; rampant corruption; and an authoritarian political system that gave Ben Ali twenty three years of corrupt rule.
In Egypt, the President Hosni Mubarak will have held power for three decades this year, and is getting set for another term. In Libya, Muammar Gadaffi has been in power since 1969. The Assads have ruled Syria since 1970.
“The widespread demonstrations in Tunisia” writes political analyst Rami Khouri “mirror a universal pattern of change by citizens who reach a breaking point and go out into the street to brave the bullets of the eternal ruler’s military and security services. When citizens are no longer afraid of the ruler’s bullets, the ruler’s days are numbered.”
Chatham House’ Middle East expert Nadim Shehadi says, “It was an unsustainable economic and political model that has survived for over 30 years and with numerous equivalents in the region. Its persistence has done countless damage and its demise will hopefully serve as an example.”
The biggest challenge facing the Arab world today is youth unemployment. The region has the highest unemployment rate in the world. The current unemployment rate stands at sixteen per cent, eighty per cent of that figure is made up of a youth population of 130 million. A staggering twenty five percent of youth between the ages of 15 and 29 are unemployed.
Describing the path through which Ben Ali rose to power in a bloodless coup in 1987, Paul Legg writes:
In the months leading up the coup, Tunisia watchers could see that Ben Ali was the darling of the western embassies. Well known to the French and American militaries, he was someone the diplomats believed could be trusted to maintain Tunisia’s secular, pro-western policies and keep the country out of the orbit of its dangerous, larger neighbour, Gadaffi’s Libya. Ben Ali had no need of outside support to plan and carry out his seizure of power, but he did so confident in the knowledge of western support.
Ben Ali took power with the familiar promise to move Tunisia towards democracy, but when he organised the country’s first multi-candidate election in 1999, he won with a farcical 99.44% of the vote. This earned him the nickname Mr 99%, although he was also known as Ben A Vie (president-for-life). His own giant posters were soon replacing Bourguiba’s on street corners. Ben Ali’s offer to the Tunisian people was stability, foreign investment, jobs and improved living standards. The price was near-zero tolerance of dissent, a slavish media and an all-inquiring police force. His supporters say the crushing of the Tunisian Islamist movement at the start of the 1990s spared Tunisia the type of conflagration soon to engulf neighbouring Algeria. Critics point to the thousands of human rights activists, politicians and journalists caught up in the crackdown, many of whom were tortured and sentenced to back-breaking labour.
Most Tunisians were prepared to accept Ben Ali’s tradeoff of economic progress in return for total control. The recent downturn in the Tunisian economy with rising joblessness and higher prices showed that Mr 99% was no longer able to deliver his side of the deal. The added toxic ingredient was allegations of personal and family corruption focused on Ben Ali’s second wife, Leila Trabelsi. Loathed by many Tunisians and dubbed by some as the Imelda Marcos of the Maghreb, she allegedly helped her extended family to acquire huge economic holdings across Tunisia. Ben Ali is not the first former dictator to have learned the danger of having a deeply unpopular spouse.